Finding fort Ross

Our strange story of seafarers, trappers and the call of the West begins with a statement by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who announced plans to close the famous Fort Ross State Historic Park dedicated to Russian settlers. In the 18th century, Russian trappers and fur traders reached America's West Coast, almost 6,000 miles from home, and settled there, calling their village Russian America.

The ongoing economic crisis had prompted Schwarzenegger's proposal to close the park, despite its standing as a National Historic Landmark on the scenic Coastal Highway One, and its historical significance to Russians.

Fort Ross, however, was not the only park slated for the crisis guillotine, as the California governor proposed the same fate for about 100 national parks.

But Russians were concerned with one "living museum"-Fort Ross. Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asked Schwarzenegger to preserve the unique monument to Russian-U.S. ties.

Gentle pressure from the Russian community seems to have worked, and it appears the park has been saved. "Schwarzenegger saves Russian fort," and "Arnold is our guy," Russian bloggers wrote.

Fort Ross is no doubt one of a kind. It was established by Russian traders and Alaskans who arrived there by ship and built a wooden stockade. They hunted sea otters and seals and contemplated the Russian colonization of America. The park's centerpiece is a wooden chapel that pays homage to Karelia and the American West.

Many years ago, when I worked for the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, I met a man who was doing the same as Schwarzenegger, saving a little bit of Russian America. But he was doing this in Russia, in a Vologda region town called Totma.

He stood in front of me, dressed in an old overcoat, eccentric cap and high boots. A thin, red-haired, stammering guy, his name was Stanislav Zaitsev. A timber cutter by trade, he quickly left the job, feeling "pity for the trees," as he put it. He chose to work instead as an artist, amateur theater director, museum keeper, and film studio chief. When we met he said he was a city guide.

He knew Totma from inside out, meeting every guest with the question: "What do you know about my countryman Ivan Kuskov, who founded Fort Ross in the United States?" Inevitably, they knew little.

It was then I learned from Zaitsev that the famous Ivan Kuskov was a Totma resident whose distinguishing feature was making five voyages to America, founding Fort Ross in California. Stanislav also explained the origin of a black fox on Totma's coat-of-arms. Black foxes were not indigenous to the Vologda's swamps, but were brought from America.

At the end of our conversation, Zaitsev said: "Believe me, we will have our Russian American national park that will equal the one in California."

"But you haven't been there," I said. "I am getting ready to go," was the reply.

Zaitsev's preparation took some time, lasting 12 years until Perestroika. Once he was contacted by the vice president of a firm building historic ships. He inquired whether Zaitsev would like to repeat the voyage of his famous countryman Ivan Kuskov in an accurate copy of the 18th-century ship. Needless to say, Zaitsev was delighted to accept the offer.

The Pomor sailing ship could take just ten people, and the only navigational aid on board was a magnetic compass.

The sailing vessel first got underway with the aid of a steamship on August 1991, the day of the Moscow military putsch against Gorbachev. "We had no doubts that the conspirators would fail, and that Perestroika was inevitable," Zaitsev wrote later.

On the same day, the Pomor was launched on its maiden voyage in Providence Bay, to sail through the Bering Sea to Alaska.

This was a real challenge as only four people of the eight on board had sailing skills. For example, Ivan Danilov was one of Russia's best bell ringers. He was invited for the trip to surprise Americans with the music of bells. And historian Zaitsev, who was appointed senior sailor, was the best fitted to keep the journal of the expedition.

A museum dedicated to Ivan Kuskov was opened in Totma in 1990, and christened "the first Russian-American museum in our country," as documented in the minutes of Gorbachev's meeting with President George H.W. Bush.

Ivan Kuskov's house became a museum, too, thanks to Zaitsev's tireless efforts. With the help of archived documents he established where Ivan Kuskov was buried. The grave is now marked with a memorial cross and a sea anchor.

Stanislav Zaitsev also founded the Russian America club in Totma, together with his colleagues and followers. But his enemies were many, too, even as small as Totma might seem to an outsider. Some of them, styling themselves as "modernists", accused Zaitsev of conservatism, the protector of the moribund Totma, while others rebuked him for cosmopolitanism, telling him to go to America.

But his America was in Totma. "Our town helps mankind understand the unity of the global culture," Zaitsev was convinced.

His pioneering spirit makes one wonder if he shouldn't have been on that maiden voyage in 1812, when Russians first landed in California's bountiful, and then untrammeled, beauty. Here is an extract from his diary: "Having grown up in Vologda's thick forests, I had long buried my childish dreams about the sea, but I always dreamed of sea as a boy. A pool after rain, the irresistible river, the most attractive thing despite grandma's warnings...Once the current took me far from the shore. I was losing my strength and was about to drown, but crying for help seemed a more terrible and shameful option..."

That story ended well, as he was able to swim back to shore. The real tragedy was that Zaitsev never made it to Fort Ross. He died in 1992 in the Canadian city of Vancouver, an unexplained death under strange circumstances. His body was found in a bay where several old museum ships were anchored. Surely there is a story there somewhere.

On the day he was buried, Zaitsev's was added to the list of the town's famous people. Like his idol, Ivan Kuskov, he returned home after a hard, but mostly successful voyage. The only better resting place for him, perhaps, would be under the chapel at Fort Ross.

Yuri Solomonov is a reporter who has written for Komsomolsaya Pravda, Literaturnaya Gazeta, and other leading Russian newspapers. Currently he heads the Higher School of Journalism at the International University in Moscow, with Mikhail Gorbachev, George Bush Sr. and Boris Yeltsin among its founders.

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